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'A Bronx Tale' embraces Italian American stereotypes

Letter to Chicago Sun Times, March 21, 2009

In 1915, American filmmaker D.W. Griffith produced a horrific cinematic masterpiece, "The Birth of A Nation," a Civil War epic in which members of the Ku Klux Klan are seen as avenging heroes saving the South from criminally inclined blacks. No less than Woodrow Wilson, the president of the United States, praised Griffith's film as "history written in lightning" -- a remark he later regretted once the NAACP began mounting protests against the film across the country. Harlem River, the Bronx

The controversial nature of "The Birth of a Nation" has never subsided but one thing is certain: the film's racist images of African Americans were forever neutralized by the election of Barack Obama in 2008, a symbol of how far we've come as a nation in rejecting crude but often popular stereotypes about an entire people, both at the movies and in real life.

It is, therefore, puzzling to see a show like Chazz Palminteri's "A Bronx Tale" take center stage at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre in President Obama's home city of Chicago. Originally a one-act play, "A Bronx Tale" is now a rehash of Palminteri's 1993 film -- and a work whose loving embrace of stereotypes seems out of place in the Obama era.

Like Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather" film, which does to Italian Americans what Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" did to blacks, "A Bronx Tale" promotes ideas that people now see as typically "Italian": New York, urban, violent, racist, mob guys, neighborhood types, stunted lives.

These images are so implanted in the public psyche that people are genuinely shocked when I tell them that the earliest Italian communities in America were in New Orleans and California in the 1850s, where farming and small businesses were king.

When pressed in interviews, Palminteri has admitted that good people like his real-life father far outnumbered any bad apples in his old neighborhood. Indeed, the Bronx also produced artists such as author Don DeLillo, painter Ralph Fasanella and Academy Award-winning actress Anne Bancroft, born Anna Italiano -- not exactly goony types.

A more troubling irony is that theatergoers leaving the Chicago theater might not have realized that Obama's new home, Washington D.C., is a great example of how deep our nation's Italian roots grow. Our entire style of government -- a tri-partite political system, including a Senate, a voting system based on ballots, a concern for citizens' rights, Latin mottos, domed buildings -- was modeled after classical Rome, a "res publica" -- republic -- embraced by the Founding Fathers.

One of those founders, Thomas Jefferson, had a neighbor named Filippo Mazzei, a Florentine political writer who assisted Jefferson draft the Declaration of Independence. And in addition to living in a Palladio-style home (Monticello: "little mountain" in Italian) and introducing wine-making to Virginia, Jefferson recruited Sicilian musicians in 1805 in his quest to professionalize the U.S. Marine Band.

A final irony: The magnificent Lincoln Memorial, a source of inspiration during Obama's pre-inauguration ceremonies, was sculpted by the Piccirilli brothers -- who were from the Bronx!

By all accounts, Palminteri is a nice man, a gifted writer and a loving husband and father -- the very antithesis of the violent thug Sonny, whom he lionizes in his scripts. But to watch him regurgitate "A Bronx Tale" is to see someone who, to quote his father in the play, "is wasting his talent." And it is a stark reminder that, at least in popular culture, Italian-American actors, writers and directors have yet to benefit from the nation's inspirational creeds of hope and change.

Bill Dal Cerro
National President
Italic Institute of America
Chicago Office

 
 
Copyright © 2007 Italic Institute of America, P.O. Box 818, Floral Park, NY 11001     Last updated February 2017